NBC conducts experiment in synergy

Comcast calls on all of its cable nets to lift b'caster, film unit

Anyone watching Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” this summer has been treated to a steady diet of dinosaurs — or rather, promos for Fox’s time-traveling sci-fi drama “Terra Nova,” which premieres in September.

The message underlying those ads is a belief TV remains the best place to market TV shows. And when it comes to promoting their fall lineups, networks can no longer rely on their own air alone — long considered their most formidable marketing weapon — to get the job done.

Perhaps that’s why despite several failed experiments in big-media muscle flexing, Comcast is seeking to redeem synergy — the corporate-speak term that suggests massive companies can make 2 + 2 = 5 by leveraging their complementary assets to create a multiplier effect.

As NBC Universal’s proud-as-a-Peacock owner, Comcast has introduced a program called Project Symphony under which to organize these efforts. While sorting out cause and effect is never completely clear in such matters, the company has boasted enough modest victories in the initial-stage months to proclaim itself wholly committed to the concept.

NBC U inaugurated the effort around the animated Easter release “Hop” — which opened much more strongly than expected, grossing $108 million at the domestic box office — then threw its collective weight behind “The Voice,” which emerged as a surprise unscripted hit for struggling NBC.

“As the world fragments, it becomes harder and harder to promote anything,” NBC Universal CEO Steve Burke told the Wall Street Journal in April, thus requiring a carpet-bombing barrage to get the word out.

Of course, embracing Symphony means ignoring a degree of history — the Viacom-CBS break-up, however misguided; and AOL-Time Warner marriage, however painful — and enforcing a sense of shared corporate mission. Such a synergistic mandate tolerates almost no internal politics, compelling managers to operate in concert for the good of the larger conglomerate instead of jealously treating their channel as a mini-fiefdom.

That said, if any company has a stable of networks well-positioned to buttress each other, it’s NBC Universal.

Before he soured on the idea of synergy, Viacom chairman Sumner Redstone once boasted about his company’s cradle to grave hold on advertisers, ranging from Nickelodeon/MTV for kids and teens up through CBS/TV Land for their parents and grandparents.

NBC Universal’s strength, by contrast, is squarely concentrated in the demographic area most conducive to marketing primetime — namely, younger to middle-aged women, with tentacles extending into men as well.

NBC brought USA, Bravo, Oxygen and Syfy to the fold, while Comcast contributed E! and Style. All appeal pretty squarely to the audience NBC will need to successfully launch its series.

On the periphery, NBC can also turn to sister channels to market its fare to the fast-growing Hispanic segment via Telemundo and men (primarily) through Comcast’s sports networks Versus (soon to become NBC Sports Network) and the Golf Channel, as well as CNBC and MSNBC.

Arguably, no other broadcaster possesses such an array of cable support. ABC probably comes closest with ESPN and ABC Family, while Fox’s cable siblings tend to skew toward men, and CBS lost most of its wired relatives in the divorce from Viacom.

Admittedly, Fox’s and CBS’ continued strength would indicate synergy has its limits. Networks without as many corporate siblings can also purchase time on unaffiliated channels or cable systems — as those Fox spots on Viacom-owned Comedy Central illustrate — though perhaps not as cost-effectively.

Yet having tasted some success, NBC Universal seems determined to forge ahead along this path, testing to what extent NBC’s new series can be given what’s being called the “Hop” treatment.

Measuring the value of that marketing will call for patience, especially given the old maxim that nothing kills a bad show faster than great promotion.

Job one for any fall campaign, however, is to inspire the public to sample — and a good way to start is to break through the din of programs crying for attention. Having found its “Voice” and learned to “Hop,” Comcast is hoping to turn Symphony into a chorus — buoying NBC with a helping hand from Bravo, deep breaths from Oxygen, effort from E! and the good ol’ USA.

If Symphony can conjure beautiful music out of that NBC orchestra, it might even give synergy a good name.